Washington - Lured by endorsements from celebrities and supermodels, consumers are clamouring for coconut oil, coconut water, coconut milk and coconut-infused cocktails.
They’re pouring coconut into coffee, spreading it on toast, swishing it like mouthwash and gulping it down after hot-yoga classes, enticed by the promise that coconut can banish belly fat, boost heart health and even stave off the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
And since coconut lends a nutty sweetness, a crunchy texture and an aroma that evokes the tropics, no wonder it’s been embraced as a healthful indulgence.
But does coconut offer any real health benefits? Researchers, dietitians and doctors say that coconut’s properties are promising, but the data isn’t sufficient to start recommending daily doses.
“The science we have is interesting, but it’s too early to deem this as the next superfood and start pouring it on everything,” says Kristin Kirkpatrick, a registered dietitian and the manager of wellness nutrition services for the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute.
Even coconut connoisseurs urge people to incorporate it into an overall healthy lifestyle.
“Like any superfood, it can improve health, but only when it’s supported by a healthy diet and exercise,” says Megan Roosevelt, a registered dietitian and the author of Superfoods for Life, Coconut.
Most of the excitement revolves around coconut’s reputation as a weight-loss tool. Coconut oil contains large amounts of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are used for fuel more quickly than the long-chain triglycerides (LCTs) found in most animal-based products. LCTs linger longer in the bloodstream and are more readily stored as fat.
“Because fats high in MCTs are metabolised faster by the liver, coconut oil may have a slight edge over other fats in terms of weight loss. The research is limited, but like animal (fat), it has calories, lots of them, and that makes a big difference in weight loss,” Kirkpatrick says.
Much of the hype has been spurred by research that has shown modest weight loss in small groups over short periods of time. The findings include a 2011 study of women who lost 0.005 percent more belly fat consuming coconut oil supplements for 12 weeks than those who took soybean oil supplements.
Such studies are too small to justify bold health claims, cautions cardiologist Ashley Simmons, the medical director of the University of Kansas Hospital’s women’s heart programme.
To be sure, coconut oil does have some proven benefits. It contains lauric acid, which reduces inflammation associated with acne, and it has been shown to have antimicrobial properties. There is some evidence that virgin coconut oil contains antioxidants that may play a role in reducing inflammation associated with arthritic conditions.
Coconut oil is a smart substitute for other saturated fats, such as butter and shortening, Simmons says. Those animal-based fats raise LDL (“bad”) cholesterol. Coconut oil raises HDL (“good”) cholesterol as well as LDL, so it doesn’t carry the same cardiovascular risk.
“As a saturated fat, it’s probably better than others,” she says. “But it’s still a high-calorie, highly saturated fat.”
Indeed, coconut’s high proportion of saturated fat, which increases inflammation and risk for cardiovascular disease, gives health experts pause. Coconut oil has a higher proportion of saturated fat than other plant-based oils. A tablespoon of coconut oil has calorie and fat counts similar to those of olive oil, but 88 percent of the fat in coconut oil is saturated, compared with just 15 percent in olive oil.
“For olive oil we have very strong studies showing that it’s reduced the risk of heart disease, stroke and cancer,” says Kirkpatrick. While studies have shown a low risk of heart disease in Pacific Island populations, which have a high intake of coconut oil, “we don’t know whether that’s directly linked to the coconut oil or it’s due to other factors”, Kirkpatrick says.
The oil also has been hailed for its potential to delay the effects of Alzheimer’s disease.
Amanda Smith, medical director at the University of South Florida’s Byrd Alzheimer’s Institute in Tampa says she has heard mixed reviews from patients who have tried it and is conducting a study to determine whether cognitive benefits exist.
The coconut craze reaches beyond the kitchen. Some recommend it for oil pulling, an ayurvedic method said to banish migraines, whiten teeth and detox the body. It involves swishing oil in the mouth for five to 20 minutes, then spitting it out. The American Dental Association recently warned that oil pulling shouldn’t be substituted for tooth brushing, fluoride use or other conventional oral-hygiene measures.
Ayurvedic practitioners don’t commonly recommend daily oil pulling or as a substitute for brushing and flossing, Larissa Hall Carlson, dean of the Kripalu School of Ayurveda in Stockbridge, Massachusetts says. And they don’t promise sweeping health benefits.
Other coconut products have also become wildly popular.
Cartons of coconut milk have become permanent fixtures in dairy departments of groceries, alongside soy, almond and hemp milks, for those searching for alternatives to cow’s milk.
Coconut water is becoming a popular thirst-quencher for those looking for a natural way to replenish electrolytes after hard workouts. It is high in potassium and magnesium.
That said, sports dietitian Pamela Nisevich Bede of Ohio, says coconut water is lower in sodium (the main electrolyte lost through sweat) and carbohydrates than conventional sports drinks. While it’s a better choice than soda or a sugar-packed juice, “I wouldn’t recommend it over a traditional sports drink to rehydrate after vigorous activity,” she says. – Washington Post